Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Inequality: First thoughts

This book has spurred less blogging than the previous two, partly because a number of tasks and diversions have reduced the pace of reading, and partly because it's pretty thick with statistical data of 1972 vintage.  That sort of thing is interesting from a historical perspective, but it isn't inspiring a lot of thoughts to come forth.  However, one point that I do like is on page 24, where they  note that even if educational performance measures have poor correlation with long term economic outcomes that is no excuse for poor conditions in schools and no reason to not try to do a good job.  I often think that we ask too much when we demand that an educational program secure a person's future.  I know that my introductory physics course will have little bearing on the job performance of the engineers in the class, and that what will really matter is their engineering classes, design projects, and their efforts in their first jobs that launch their careers.  I also know that they will find it easier to learn certain things in those engineering classes if they understand physics, so I should do what I can for them.  Likewise, good grades in elementary school are hardly the main reason that I have enjoyed whatever success I have had in my career.  I also know that if I didn't have the foundations it would have been much harder to do the things that did lead to whatever success I have had.  Seen in that light, I don't much care if Head Start participation affects long term success rates or whatever.  I do care if it helps in early grades.  After that, I care if the early grades help in what is next, and so forth.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Inequality by Jenck: First two pages

I am about to go to a meeting, but I started reading a couple pages of the latest book, (Inequality by Christopher Jencks) and they could be ripped straight from Class Dismissed.  This book would be consistent with a narrative of "The more things change the more they stay the same."

Or, a narrative of "All of this has happened before and will happen again."

Monday, March 2, 2015

Class Dismissed: Concluding thoughts

About half of the last chapter is devoted to arguing that economic problems need economic solutions.  I agree with the general premise.  Marsh argues the specifics from very much a left/progressive perspective, and your agreement with this portion of the chapter will depend in large part on how many of his premises you share.  However, even if you have a different view of social and economic problems, I think the general proposition that schools cannot be the sole solution to poverty is a sound one.  Indeed, one could take a very conservative, traditionalist view of education and argue for education as building minds, building character, and building citizens, rather than view education as building workers.  To a large extent that's the view of William F. Buckley in God and Man at Yale, a book on higher education that is written from a perspective quite different from that of John Marsh.

Marsh goes there, to some extent, in the second half of the chapter.  He greatly sympathizes with the view that education is a good in itself, irrespective of whether it enhances productivity.  There are a great many people who have argued that a well-educated citizenry is a necessary (though hardly sufficient) bulwark against many forms of tyranny.  However, as Marsh points out, the belief that if we just send everyone to school they'll become better voters is almost as naive as the view that if we just send everyone to school they'll become higher-paid workers.  Educational problems are hard enough to solve on their own, and even harder to solve as means to some other end.

Marsh's final view is one that I basically agree with in the broad strokes:  Education is a good unto itself, but it also does play at least some role in ameliorating social and economic problems.  While it is neither just nor feasible to treat education as the only path to economic improvement, as long as society does treat it that way there will be people seeking education to that end, and it is right and proper that we do what we can for the people who are doing their best to study towards a better future.  However, while we have a duty to do what we can for the students in front of us, I do think we need to communicate clearly to the broader society that we can help people reach intellectual milestones but we cannot transform the economy, we cannot nullify the supply and demand factors that will erode the college earnings premium when degree production rises, and we cannot work miracles when we are sent woefully under-prepared students.  We need to do what we can for those in front of us, but we need to be realistic in telling the wider world what we can do.

In a day or two I'll start blogging another book.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Chapter 4 of Class Dismissed: Left psychology, right psychology, and reformer psychology

Marsh proposes in the last few pages of Chapter 4 that a nearly-exclusive focus on education as the answer to poverty and inequality arises largely because Americans want to believe that we have or can have a system where people get what they deserve.  Teaching a man to fish satisfies the liberal impulse to do something to help people, but also satisfies the conservative impulse to make the poor responsible for themselves.  (I hasten to add that that conservative impulse to favor personal responsibility is certainly not a bad one, if acted on in concert with other considerations as part of a balanced approach.)

What I find most illuminating about this simple and reasonable framing is that it sheds light on one of the stranger aspects of academic culture:  When I go to a presentation on educational reforms and improvements, the presenters usually bear fundamentally conservative tokens of establishment figures (funding, titles, the imprimatur of elite organization) yet they speak a language of social justice, equity, benevolence, transformation, and "shaking things up." These are not stereotypical lefty fringe figures lecturing in sandals or whatever; they would be completely inoffensive in the eyes of a conservative donor. Analyzed against the ruler of the political left-right axis, they exemplify the bipartisan nature of the consensus that Marsh identifies.  Left and right both agree that we can and should fix all social problems via educational reforms, so you get the weird situation of a STEM education reformer talking about social justice and equity and diversity but also saying that we need more Americans and fewer foreigners in STEM for the sake of our national defense.

I always marvel at the weird situation of sitting in a presentation by a person with countless accolades from stodgy professional organizations and a title like "Associate Vice Provost for Academic Initiatives" (or even, at one conference, "College President") speaking animatedly about completely overhauling the entire academic landscape because everything that we've ever done needs to be swept away.  I am admittedly a boring person who was born seven years after the end of the sixties, and I have attended precious few protests, but everything I've heard about shaking up establishments, rejecting the old ways, and agitating for equity tells me that you shouldn't go looking for bold, anti-establishment thinking in a hotel conference space with frigid air conditioning*, especially if the alleged reformer is wearing a suit and commanding a speaking fee.

Despite that, a great many academics come out of these events speaking in a language that at time comes close to that of a religious convert.  Many academics profess no religious faith but nonetheless offer narratives that sound tantalizingly close to conversion experiences or born-again faith when discussing their experiences with pedagogical reform efforts.  The whole thing is bizarre to me, and not just because I'm a product of Catholic grade school and a practicing** Catholic to this day, i.e. a person for whom born-again narratives are alien.  Even if I were irreligious, I think I would be suspicious that these establishment-seeming figures will actually make the world a more equitable place.

I still don't know why so many college professors eat those presentations up like they're pita chips with Trader Joe's humus***, but at least I have some context for understanding why these workshop presenters are so bizarre:  They are embodying the left-right consensus nature of educational reform, hence you get the equity and justice language of the left from somebody bearing markers that could open the doors of the most conservative establishments.  Everyone else in the room might be eating it up, but I feel like I'm staring at a bizarre alien monster that just stepped out of a flying saucer.

*Seriously, why are conference rooms and event spaces always air-conditioned to the point that there's at least one condensed matter physicist doing a superconductivity experiment in the corner?
**Well, as practicing as a typical American Catholic, which is to say that I'm not batting 1.000 on mass attendance.
***The snack food of choice for academics everywhere.

Chapter 4 of Class Dismissed: It's the economy, stupid!

Chapter 4 traces the trajectory of the idea that education is THE solution to problems of poverty and economic inequity.  Marsh's take is that in the 1960's there was a political moment where a War on Poverty seemed feasible and worthwhile, but that idea mostly collapsed, and improvements to education were the one idea that survived from the collapse.  Personally, I think the idea of a winnable War on Poverty is hubris, given the multi-faceted and eternal nature of the problem.  Dissecting the nature and causes of poverty would take us far afield from the educational interests motivating my blogging here, but irrespective of one's own optimism or pessimism on this topic, and irrespective of what one thinks a proper solution or mitigation would or should look like, improvements to education can only be part of the solution, not the bulk of the solution. As Marsh notes repeatedly, treating education as the entirety of the solution rather than a mere component of it essentially amounts to a postulate that the problem is entirely with the poor people, and that if they are improved then poverty is solved.  If only it were that simple.

Marsh puts a negative face on the motives behind regarding education as the solution, and I'll get there in the next post.  First, though, I'll examine the best possible defense of the idea that poverty can be fixed entirely through education.  We're all familiar with the saying "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he can feed himself thereafter."  There are certainly important ideas in that saying, whether you view it through a conservative lens that sees moral hazard in handouts or a more sympathetic lens that sees dignity in labor.  However, it's also a false dichotomy.  What if you teach a person to fish but there are hardly any reliable boats available?  What if pollution is killing all of the fish in the vicinity?  The point I'm getting at in my analogy is that even if one mostly takes handouts off of the list of options, "teach a man to fish" leaves the structure of the economy unexamined.  Is the growing bifurcation between rich and poor solely a consequence of poor people lacking the skills (whether through their own faults or accidents of birth) to compete in the modern economy, or are structural factors and economic policies also in play?  If the later, will the economy have well-paying jobs available for all of the people lifted up if we just expand educational opportunity?

Mind you, I don't believe that education is completely irrelevant to issues of poverty and inequality.  Certainly, education plays a substantial role in one's job prospects.  However, I'm unconvinced that endlessly-expanding college enrollment rosters will fix everything, especially in the context of sending more people into STEM careers.*  Saying that skill development helps people improve their prospects in life is different from saying that policy-makers have an accurate view of which fields will be in demand, and which types of education will help the most people prosper.  Indeed, if I had an accurate forecast of the job market I would probably be able to find ways to make trillions of dollars in equities and commodities markets, since I would know which sectors will prosper or decline, and which raw materials they'll need.  The choice isn't between teaching a man to fish and giving him a fish, it's between giving him food and some combination of teaching him to fish, improving the water quality in the bay, teaching him to grow corn, improving irrigation infrastructure, teaching him to grow apples, improving the rules on pesticides, etc.

On the other side of the coin, while I echo Marsh when he rejects the hypothesis that poverty can be addressed solely by improving poor people, it would be factually and ethically incorrect to deny that poverty does make its mark on people, and often that mark shows up in school.  On page 153, Marsh cites a 1972 book that makes a point we've seen repeated in studies again and again over the years:  Parental income affects educational outcomes at least as well as educational outcomes affect subsequent income.**  So, just as we cannot ignore aspects of economic opportunity that go beyond educational opportunity, we also cannot ignore the fact that poverty leaves its cruel mark on people and thus affects how educational opportunity will play out.  Maybe the better order of operations is to improve job opportunities so that the children of today's workers can do better in school, rather than improve schools in the hopes that people will eventually get better jobs.

Of course, "Just improve the job market!" is easier said than done, and I certainly have no easy prescriptions there.  On the other hand, "Just improve the schools!" is also easier said than done, and decades of tinkering with schools has not reduced economic inequality in the US.  I don't claim to know what the solution is, but I concur with Marsh's point that a single-minded focus on schools is not the way to go.

*An excellent book has been written on that topic.  I read it when it came out last year, but maybe I'll return to it and blog it at some point.
**This is the next book that I plan to blog.  Although the statistical data is now more than 40 years out of date, I plan to read it with the hopes of understanding how thinking on the issue has evolved over time.